Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

Gail on Favreau, Choi, and Finding Yourself

Hugh on Poor Boys, Swingers and Food Trucks

Emeril: Nick's Choice Is Part of the Game

Nick's License to Immune

Hugh's Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

Hugh Decides Eight Is Enough

Gail Talks OvenGate

Dookie Chase Makes Everybody Cry

Fin, Found, Floundering

What Danny Meyer Taught Gail Simmons

'Top Chef' Goes to Hog Heaven

Gris Gris Boucherie Ya Ya

Brian and Travis' Dud Spuds

And Don't Call Me Shirley

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Gail reflects on the neck-and-neck competition between Nina and Nick and why after an arduous Judges Table, Nick came out on top.

Bravotv.com: For this final challenge the chefs are tasked with creating a four-course menu and a restaurant for the evening. Do you want to start by talking about their approaches?
Gail Simmons: I think they both had a similar approach in that they wanted to show us how much they’ve grown, how much they’ve changed, and the breadth of their cooking ability. I think they both came really prepared, which was amazing to see. They both had very clear visions from the beginning of exactly how they wanted their restaurants to be run, exactly how they wanted to cook. They chose sous chefs who they thought would be able to deliver that in the best possible way. So it was really an exciting finale, also because it was such a close finale. It was really up in the air. There was not, in my opinion, an underdog or clear winner whose finale it was to lose. I think in the past, not always, that has been the case. For me at least, this was a neck-and-neck race, which was great. It made us really excited to see what they would actually cook.

Bravotv.com: Why don’t we start with Nina’s restaurant?
GS: Well first off, our judges were really fun to be with. David Kinch from Los Gatos, California, who I’d actually never met in person before but I had been a fan of and known about for a long long time. I know his girlfriend well. Takashi Yagihashi a Top Chef Master from Chicago. Paul Bartolotta, who has been on the show with us and been in other finales before -- I think the last finale he was in was in Signapore, and Morimoto who has a restaurant at the Andaz where we were staying in Maui and obviously spends a lot of time in Hawaii and is a fish genius to say the least. So it was great to have them their and have their knowledge and insight into the food. It was really exciting for all of us.

Bravotv.com: So now, why don’t we talk about the food at Nina’s? What did you think of her decision to branch about beyond the four dishes, by adding the breadfruit and the papaya skewer?
GS: This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen someone make extra courses, or provide a little extra touches in their dishes. I liked what she chose to do. I have to say that the two things she chose to do -- the breadfruit appetizer at the very beginning with the foie gras butter and then the papaya skewers were amazing. They both added a lot to the meal in terms of how well they were made and how thoughtful they were. That papaya skewer was the perfect sort of palate cleanser. It was cold, icy, and delicious. And the breadfruit was a great play on a bread course and it was also very delicious.

The only reason that something like that becomes an issue is that they are using their time and energy to put towards making these things when there are flaws in the four dishes that do count the most. So you kind of wish, if you they hadn’t been preoccupied making theses dishes they could have thought through something or made the other dishes better. Sometimes your main dishes suffer because of it, and in this case specifically her swordfish and her dessert were definitely not perfect. We all sort of felt that it was a shame that she gave us these amazing things that we couldn’t really count in the body of her work, but that dishes that we did have to really examine weren’t exactly as we hoped they would be.

Bravotv.com: Let’s talk about the successful dishes Nina had that night
GS: Nina and Nick’s first courses were a very direct comparison. They both did a raw tuna, crudo course. Both were very good for that matter. Nina’s was a little bit brighter, a little more exciting. Nina’s crudo had heat. It had great seasoning so you really got the full flavor of that fresh fish. So hers was a little stronger than Nick’s, although I really liked them both. And then her second course was this orecchiette with goat ragu that was once again an incredible pasta dish from Nina. Her pasta is really flawless. And the goat ragu was tender and had tons of seasoning and spice. She had fresh cherry tomatoes in there that sort of burst in your mouth. The actual pasta was absolutely delicious. I can’t say enough about it. It was such a beautiful course, such a delicate pasta. I was so happy to hear that Paul Bartolotta liked it as much as we all did. He is sort of my pasta guru, and he was totally blown away by it.

Her swordfish was not only sort of unexciting from a presentation standpoint, but it really didn’t have much flavor. It didn’t feel very cohesive. It felt like a departure from her meal because the first two courses were so exciting, so Nina, so what we’ve come to expect from her. This swordfish just feel flat. It really wasn’t as the main course of a meal what we expected from her.

And then her dessert, I think we all said it many times, didn’t really feel like a dessert. It was small. It was just a finger food, a few bites. It didn’t have a ton of flavor. She sprinkled dried coconut and macadamia nuts over the zeppole, but they don’t stick to the zeppole, so when you pick it up -- if you’re eating it with your fingers like we were -- you don’t get the macadamia nuts and the coconut with it. Then you have to pick them up separately and shove them in your mouth. It all just wasn’t a completely bite. You couldn’t get what you wanted out of that dish when you went to eat it. That’s where it really fell short. I know that she can better. I know dessert isn’t her forte, and she didn’t have to cook one. I know why she did -- she wanted the meal to feel well rounded and I appreciate that. Sadly, after those two highlights at the beginning of her meal, this dessert did not really do anything at all.

Bravotv.com: And now let’s talk about Nick’s restaurant and meal. 
GS: Nick’s service varied wildly from when we ate there and when Padma and her group did. There were major issues with service on their end. We definitely heard some noises but we got our food in an acceptable time and didn’t really notice how much of a struggle Nick was having in the kitchen -- except for that one huge lash out that he made.

That said, his first course was really nice. A little underseasoned, a little subtle, but he showed us a really skilled dish. The green apple and wasabi were in a water. The dish was beautiful, it just was a little bit underseasoned so you didn’t get those flavors that you want to burst in your mouth with that fish. Those are really strong flavors -- meyer lemon, green apple, wasabi -- and they just tasted a little bit muted. But it was beautifully presented and beautifully crafted that dish. So it was by no means a failure.

The next dish of his was my favorite dish that he made all night -- this shrimp bisque with scallop and daikon noodles. I loved it and I think a lot of people at the table did too. It had tons of flavor, the bisque was sort of the sauce pooling at the bottom of the plate and it was bursting with flavor. It was rich and you could tell that he made an amazing stock and base. I loved the texture of the noodles. There was heat. There was a great counterpoint with some chilies that he had in the dish. I thought it was fantastic.

Then he had the duck course, which was very complex and very sophisticated, actually. And certainly was much stronger a dish than Nina’s third course. Emeril really had a problem with how his piece of duck was cooked but none of us did at our table. We thought it was cooked well, and he rendered the fat on the duck, which is a really important step when you are first cooking the duck. He did it really well so that the top of the duck was crispy. The squash was sweet. There was crunch, there was a smooth puree. It had everything you wanted in a main course -- it felt very complete, very substantial, and really refined.

And then finally his dessert. He chose to do panna cotta to redeem himself from a previous challenge, the Jacques Pepin Spanish versus French challenge. I wasn’t there for that challenge so I didn’t know how bad his original panna cotta was but I heard from my fellow chefs about it. I have to say I loved this panna cotta. The great part about this panna cotta was that there were so many elements besides the custard itself so that every bite you took was a little bit different. There was a lot of texture. There was fruit. The nuts, the white chocolate. I’m not generally a fan of white chocolate. This incorporation of white chocolate didn’t hit you over the head, didn’t feel too buttery. Sometimes I find white chocolate leaves a film on the roof of your mouth, because it’s really just milkfat and I really liked the way that all his flavors came together. I really like the texture. It felt very tropical. It felt perfect in the Hawaiian setting we were in. It could have had a little more “jiggle” I think, which was some people’s complaint, but ultimately we all licked the bowl clean and that’s a pretty powerful review.

So then we got down to the deliberation and this was really, and I know we probably say this every time, but it really was one of the hardest decisions we’ve made. We couldn’t agree, quite frankly, and mostly that’s because we had very different experiences between the two tables. Padma’s group was five people while we were four, so what became very complicated was because we had different experiences eating our meals because service went differently for the two tables,it made the comparison sort of skew -- as there were five of them. So it wasn’t necessarily a fair and even discussion. So we really had to get down to dishes, comparing each dish to each other and putting aside the rest of the experience so we could make sure we were judging on fair ground so to speak.

And when we went through the dishes, it was really close. Nina’s first two dishes were stronger than NIck’s, but NIck’s final two dishes were stronger than Nina’s. And then there were the extras that Nina made and we had to figure out how to factor them in. And this went on and on for hours literally, until we sort of realized we had to think about who made the worst dishes of the night, who made the best dish of the night, and that went to a vote between all of us. And in the end we thought that the full experience that Nick gave us and the strength and highlight of just a few of his dishes -- really the last three courses of his -- were really exceptional. So after much back and forth, long into the night, wherein I almost fell asleep at the table numerous times from sheer exhaustion we decided that Nick’s meal was the winning meal that night -- and that he would be named Top Chef!

Nina, looking back, was one of the strongest competitors we’ve ever had. She is so articulate and the food she cooks is so completely from the heart. She’s so talented. She’s got such an amazing philosophy and insight into herself. She’s such a great chef and such a great leader to. I admire her so, so much, and I love eating her food. I hope that I get to eat more of her food again -- Italian, Caribbean, whatever she wants to cook I’ll take it. And it’s rare that a chef really at her level, just coming into her own has such an amazing grasp on so many different cuisines. She really is talented and I adore her. I truly adore her.

And Nick I feel really amazing about too as the winner this year. I’m so proud of him. I think of all the chefs that were on this season he grew the most in a lot of ways. He came back fighting for his life. He won every challenge in the finale -- he won the Quickfire and the Elimination last episode and then he won overall. We did not take this decision lightly. He is so capable, so strong, so technically sound, and that’s really what impressed us the most. He also, I think, is really trying to push himself, in a way that we were really blown away by -- and i think it showed in his final meal.

So I’m excited to see what Nick and Nina do next. I’m excited to have Nick with us at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen this year and to get to know him even more now that we can actually have a conversation.

Read more about:

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

So she's going to take more time shopping at Whole Foods -- and ask for the best of Melissa's basket and Adam's shrimp.

Bravotv.com: Let's dive right in. How did it feel to go shopping?
Gail Simmons: Shopping at Whole Foods was fantastic and hilarious. It made us realize that you need to be strategic, which was the point of the exercise for us. They gave us 30 minutes, but we took a little longer. We didn't let the producers push us around! We’re not contestants and we weren't going to stand for it! So, you realize how little time you have, and how big Whole Foods can be. You spend a lot of time running around.

 

My strategy with my pantry was to get a lot of fresh, delicious food that you can cook in lots of different ways. A good balance of proteins, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, fresh herbs, grains. But I didn't want to get too much. Everyone has different strategies; Padma got a ton of different ingredients. Tom's pantry was very pared down. Richard and I were somewhere in the middle.

 

Bravotv.com: Let's start by talking about the two dishes that came from your pantry?
GS: Katsuji and Melissa. They used the same protein, but their dishes were very different. They both used shrimp which one of the proteins that I bought. I bought something else too, something that I know has given people trouble in the past (which is why I specifically chose it) -- chicken wings. And I really wanted people to use them. Instead, they chose the easy way out because shrimps cook quickly.

Melissa's used a lot of fresh vegetables, which I was hoping she would: dill, mint, artichoke. I was so excited about all of it. I think it was beautifully done, a lovely salad with that little shrimp on top with spiced yogurt. But it was just a salad with a quick-cooking seafood. It was so similar to what she had done in Restaurant Wars when she made a scallop with grapefruit salad. I believe she could have done so much more. Melissa keeps saying she wanted to focus on her knife skills, and, of course, your knife skills have to be precise. But I need to see more than just knife skills. I want to see cooking skills, I want to see roasting skills, braising skills. I want to see her hands get a little dirtier and her dishes not be as superficial. It was a light, lovely dish. I was happy to eat it for lunch. But when you're competing against six other really talented chefs, we all want to see a little more depth. Katsuji on the other hand went big. He used his ingredients in a really powerful way. The potato salad, the poached shrimp had bold seasoning and I loved how they went together. It was a great dish. It may not have been the best of the day, but I was actually really happy with what he chose to make.

 

Bravotv.com: So for the rest, let's talk about who was on top and who was on bottom.

GS: At the top there was Gregory who really was going for Padma's heart there. He did great with his coconut milk curry. A really balanced, powerful dish. But it's something we’ve seen from Gregory many times in the past. In fact, in the first challenge he made a similar spicy curry dish with chicken. As much as we thought it was a delicious bowl of food, it was so typical of what we expect from Gregory. George's food was really exciting for us. This was my first time tasting his food and meeting him on Top Chef. He did a great job. The kebab was moist, seasoned really well, and the lentils were beautiful too. My only small issue with the dish is I couldn't understand why he separated the lentils from the kebab in two separate dishes. Why not put lentils on the plate and the kebab right on top, with a dollop of the yogurt? It seemed a little bit disconnected to me. But all-in-all, a really strong dish. Doug had the winning dish of the night. He used Richard's crazy pantry in a way that I thought was smart, clear-cut, and creative. The chorizo and mussels and peppers, just how Tom said, go together well, as do the cauliflower and the garlic. There was sweetness, there was spice, it was light and fresh but had a soulful, rustic flavor we all loved. You could see use of technique. On the bottom were dishes that tried to stretch and didn’t come through. Mei did a great job overall, except her lamb was undercooked. You want lamb medium, medium rare, but the center of that meat was raw to the point where the texture was chewy and almost cold. It would have been better if she had been able to cook it five minutes longer. We talked about Melissa's mistakes already, which also landed her on the bottom. I totally applaud Adam for trying to make a quick-flash marinade. He's been in the middle for so long and he thought "I gotta go big or I gotta go home." He tried to go big and unfortunately, he went home because of that technique. I get the idea of what he was doing, I don't doubt that it could've been successful if it were perhaps done in a different setting, with a little more control. But the flash marinade of his shrimp did not cook it as needed. It was still grey, it was still raw, and the texture of raw shrimp is not appealing. It's squeaky, it's squishy, and it becomes sort of mushy. We wanted it firm and cooked through. It's not like fish that you can eat sashimi-style Unfortunately Adam's hard work, his big risk sent him home.

I will miss him. I think he's an incredibly articulate, clever chef. I think he has an extraordinary career ahead of him. I'm excited to see him back in New York City. I can't wait to eat his food again. Also I want to say of this entire episode that was it was thrilling to see our superfans in the kitchen. We've never let people come into the kitchen in that way before, even though people ask us all the time. It brought so much good energy to have basically a live audience with us for the day. Everyone was so psyched. It was amazing to be around people who really love the show, to let them eat food from our talented chefs. SO much fun!